According to the World Health Organization, tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death on planet earth. Over 5 million people die thanks to tobacco worldwide. In America, smoking kills over 1000 people a day. And here in our most health-conscious state, California, over 40,000 people die from their addiction to nicotine every year.
Smoking hurts everyone and helps no one, but the numbers tell a depressing story in Asian-American communities in particular. Research has shown that the numbers of deaths due to cancer is rising faster in Asian Americans than in any other ethnic group. In addition, lung cancer rates are 18 percent higher among Southeast Asian men than for Caucasians. And Asian American and Pacific Islander females are actually the only racial, ethnic or gender group in the nation for which cancer is the leading cause of death. In 2005, 1 out of 5 Asian American males smoked. Here in California, 36 percent of Korean American men and 32 percent of Vietnamese American men smoke cigarettes. Among cigarette smokers in California and Hawaii, Native Hawaiians and other Polynesians are more susceptible to and have higher incidence rates of lung cancer (263.9/100,000) than Whites, Japanese Americans, and Latinos. The numbers don’t tell the story of the pain that these grim numbers symbolize for our families and friends.
The emotional trauma that this health crisis has caused is difficult to fully comprehend. But the financial costs, on the other hand, are easily quantifiable. In a time of growing state budget deficits and new strains on our health care system, it is easy to see that the treatment of smoking-related diseases creates significant costs in the health system and society-at-large. The Governor estimates that smoking results in $8.6 billion in direct medical costs and $7.3billion from lost productivity due to illness and premature death, thanks to smoking.
Any rational plan to reduce health care costs will try to prevent children from becoming the smokers that will need such costly health care. But we must not forget those that currently smoke. We must to everything in our power to give smokers the tools they need to quit. That means requiring comprehensive insurance coverage to help people quit. Specifically: coverage for evidence-based and linguistically-appropriate counseling services and Food and Drug Administration-approved medications.
In short, we need give doctors the ability to maximize the quit rates amongst their patients. Where to start? The best way to seriously cut smoking rates is by ensuring that Medi-Cal, the state’s health insurance program for the elderly, disabled and poor, covers the full range of smoking cessation services.
Today. Medi-Cal only provides partial smoking cessation benefits and too few patients or doctors even know about these benefits. What’s worse is that Medi-Cal’s policy does not reflect the most current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and does not cover all FDA-approved smoking cessation medications. That needs to change.
Assembly Bill 2662, (Dymally, D-Los Angeles) which is supported by the California Medical Association and the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, will increase public awareness of the benefits available for Medi-Cal recipients in order to help smokers quit. It will require Medi-Cal to offer the full range of personal counseling and/or all FDA-approved smoking cessation medications, so that our doctors have the freedom and flexibility to decide – with no bureaucratic strings attached – what is the best way to treat their own patients, whether it is through counseling or medication or both.
For decades, cigarette makers have prayed on the Asian community. Now, it’s time to kick the habit once and for all. With Medi-Cal providing smoking cessation treatment for all recipients, California’s Asian community may be able to break the tobacco addiction for good.